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Make no mistake: Welders, engineers care about UX, too

Tony Rost
By Tony Rost CTO, Metal Toad

Several years ago, a global commercial vehicle maker asked my firm to develop a remote fleet management, health and performance portal that would open a new revenue stream. I was prepared to make a hard case for user experience (UX), because adoption rates of digital industrial products hinge on design. Though many would say functionality is key, and it is, the manufacturer wanted to start with UX—and wanted the product’s design to compete with Instagram and other smart phone apps. Before dedicating any budget to development, the manufacturer wanted to gather substantial user feedback on design and functionality.

I was stunned.

Since that discussion, I’ve found that what used to be an uphill battle in talks with manufacturers has increasingly become the first step when discussing new digital products and revenue streams. Before even talking with engineers, manufacturers are bringing software developers and graphic designers on board to develop industrial digital products that put the user first.

This approach represents a significant opportunity: As the Industrial Internet of Things is adopted more broadly, digitally-driven products have potential to provide a larger percentage of a manufacturer’s revenue. Unless there’s a dedicated focus on UX, the opportunity to create new business models can go unrealized.

There is a long history of taking the design of consumer software seriously, but design has historically been an afterthought with industrial programs and apps. The presumption is that the typical hard-hat worker doesn’t care about design or usability of digital industrial products, and as a result, these internal-facing products have been ugly and difficult to use.

Users today expect more: a certain design aesthetic, usability and a consistent experience across the desktop and mobile devices. The focus has shifted from features and functionality to a UX closer to that of Amazon, Google and Facebook, which have set the standard for ease of use. The welders, engineers and manufacturing technicians that use your digital products are coming to your product from stunningly designed websites and apps like Instagram or Spotify. If their experience is not consistent, they will reject it. As abandonment surges, the software becomes a drag on the organization—regardless of usage, it still has to be maintained.

It used to be difficult to create beautiful, interactive software applications. But technology has changed that. Design-first digital product development is gaining traction with manufacturing organizations that view software development as a costly and risky venture, but adoption is slow. It’s a lengthier, more thoughtful approach, with larger up-front costs.

The upsides, however, are significant. Design-first product development reduces risk and creates substantially more value. Research from the Design Value Index, a tool published annually in collaboration with the Design Management Institute, shows that the stock prices of firms that integrate design thinking into corporate strategy outperform the S&P 500 Index by more than 200 percent. A design-first approach creates a more usable digital product over the long term and turns the tide on adoption.

To successfully move to design-first product development, consider these two mandates:

  • Invest heavily in UX. Plan to reserve about 20 percent of funding for UX. Don’t rest until you see prototypes being tested with the eventual users and your team interviewing them in order to get it right.
  • Gather user feedback monthly. User demands change, and your product must shift with demands or risk abandonment.

Design-focused development has enabled the remote fleet health and performance portal to become a key differentiator for the commercial vehicle manufacturer, and today the portal is part of a suite of products that connects thousands of vehicles worldwide.

It shows manufacturers can deliver a UX that rivals consumer apps.

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